Median Pay for Stenographers Falling Despite Demand?

The interpretation of statistics is something that fuels plenty of jobs and debates. From serious matters such as crime and the criminal justice system to industry niches such as futures trading, people are always seeking new ways to collect and describe data. The court reporting and stenotype services industry is no different. There are numerous market research reports on our $3 billion industry, along with the publishing of data from sources such as industry associations and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Due to the nature of our field, with over 70% of it being “freelance” according to the Ducker Report, these statistics vary a lot. Take, for example, the BLS’s current count of 21,300 court reporter jobs in 2020, with 500 jobs expected to be added 2020 to 2030.

Bureau of Labor Statistics stenographer statistics as of July 1, 2022.

Now compare that to about a year prior.

Bureau of Labor Statistics stenographer statistics as of June 21, 2021.

Does anyone think we had 15,700 jobs in 2021 and that number grew by about 6,000 in 2022? No. We must understand and accept that there’s some inaccuracy or margin of error here, the BLS can’t be 100% correct.

For the sake of completeness, let’s go back about a decade using the wayback machine, which shows past images of websites, and see what kind of changes the entry for court reporters had.

Bureau of Labor Statistics stenographer statistics as of June 20, 2020.
Bureau of Labor Statistics stenographer statistics as of July 3, 2019
Bureau of Labor Statistics stenographer statistics as of October 14, 2018.
Bureau of Labor Statistics stenographer statistics as of July 6, 2017.
Bureau of Labor Statistics stenographer statistics as of June 28, 2016.
Bureau of Labor Statistics stenographer statistics as of July 21, 2015.
Bureau of Labor Statistics stenographer statistics as of July 4, 2014.
Bureau of Labor Statistics stenographer statistics as of July 8, 2013.
Bureau of Labor Statistics stenographer statistics as of June 15, 2012.

The BLS does seem to acknowledge the retirement wave we are expecting in the job outlook portion of its statistics, and mentions a potential 21,000 openings due to retirement.

Job outlook of court reporters from the BLS as of July 6, 2022.

Interestingly, 21,000 is 70% of 30,000. Ducker said 70% of reporters would retire over the next 20 years (2013 to 2033), and predicted a 2018 supply of reporters of 27,700, which is close enough to 30,000 for this comparison. The only issue I have with the numbers here is that they condense the time frame. Ducker predicted 70% of reporters retiring over 20 years, or an average of somewhere around 1,050 a year. This seems to assume all the retirements will take place over the next decade, when the reality is the forecasted retirements were spread over double that period of time.

The Court Reporting Industry Outlook 2013-2014 predicted that about 70 percent of court reporters would retire 2013 to 2033.

Otherwise, looking at the Bureau of Labor statistics numbers in isolation, they don’t really make sense to me. In 2012 there were 22,000 court reporter jobs and a gain of 3,100 jobs over 10 years (2010-2020). By June 28, 2016, only four years later, it was reported there were 20,800 jobs with a gain of 300 jobs over ten years (2014-2024). Going by the BLS, jobs reported 2012 to 2022, we lost over 28% of the jobs in this field. Our growth rate is far down from what it was in 2012 pre-shortage forecast. The BLS stats are really bleak.

But we cannot look at the BLS statistics in isolation. We must take other available industry statistics. Again, the Ducker Report, commissioned by the National Court Reporters Association in 2013, forecasted a 2018 supply of stenographers of 27,700 and a supply gap of about 4,000 court reporters.

Ducker Worldwide forecasts 2018 supply and demand for stenographers.

The Speech-to-Text Institute pretty much copied those numbers to make the case for why digital court reporting is required. They say we can’t fill the stenographer demand. That doesn’t appear to be mathematically true.

Illustration of stenographer supply and demand by Speech-to-Text Institute. Notably, the supply gap was not as bad as forecasted.

Reconciling the two sets of data is a nightmare. Are there around 27,000 court reporter jobs or 15,000? Are we adding 1,400 jobs over the next ten years or will there be over 22,000 jobs? Are we in demand or is our median pay falling? Some of this is explained by looking at retirements versus growth. But these things really matter, because ultimately, over-recruiting is going to lead to lower incomes and bad outcomes. There’s already one person out there whose experience with court reporting was so bad, they dedicated a Twitter to it. My goal is to avoid that kind of suffering for people. So I’m opening up an uncomfortable conversation. What if we reach a point where we are recruiting to fill a supply gap that’s on its way to being filled? Unless we start creating more opportunities by branching out and building demand for our services, some of our graduates may end up with nowhere to go. That’s a future that those of us deep into mentorship do not want for the people we guide. We need to start coming up with things that drive up demand if we want the number of stenographers to begin consistently increasing.

If we can’t get a handle on how many of us there are, we’re going to get mowed over every time someone comes out with a new agenda or misleading statistic. We are in a weird place politically because just about every player benefits by pushing the shortage. STTI, U.S. Legal, Veritext, and the digital court reporting brigade get to sell digital by stating the shortage is impossible™️ to solve. NCRA gets the increased volunteering and stenographic fervor that comes with everyone fighting against the digital menace™️ and against the untimely death of stenography™️. Schools get increased enrollment from our stenomania™️-style recruitment. Perhaps this is a pessimist’s point of view, but I’m left with the sense that even if I could show with 100% certainty that the shortage wasn’t as bad as forecasted, it wouldn’t really matter, because all of the major players would ignore it.

I write because I believe that prosperity flows from truth. When we see situations as they are and not as we want them to be, our combined commitment to excellence seizes the day. Our “gold standard” situation doesn’t arise merely from telling ourselves we’re the best, but from our human ability to be problem-solving machines. In order to be effective problem solvers, we must state the problem accurately. I am now of the belief that our falling median pay is a greater threat to our wonderful profession than the shortage, thanks largely to the initiatives that were created to confront the shortage, such as NCRA A to Z, Project Steno, and Open Steno, as well as hundreds of volunteers. I further believe there are steps that can be taken to address the issue, such as the collection and distribution of aggregated rate data, which the FTC says is legal, or an increase in the overall entrepreneurship, sales, and marketing of court reporters through education. Tools to help new reporters understand the business. These things would keep court reporters informed and marketable, help slow the rate at which newer people without ties to the existing market are taken advantage of, and surprise, attack the heart of the issue, pay disparity is killing our field.

If we do nothing, our association numbers will likely tumble as people fail to find the money for their annual membership during a time of soaring inflation and falling wages. Realtime is not a sustainable answer for the majority. There are fewer than 3,000 CRRs and CRCs combined. If we allow ourselves to be boxed into a world where only realtime is treated as valuable, we lose a significant percentage of the market share and field. Those kinds of losses are the true threat to our sustainability, considering they would come atop the loss in jobs and growth reported by the BLS.

This is not a doom-and-gloom scenario though. Recognizing the challenges ahead will allow us to meet them. For my part in it, I have recently started a reporting firm and hired an operations manager to help bring in business. If I am able to bootstrap this operation successfully, I’ll be doing my part to raise those median wages while also saving consumers money. Even in the worst case scenario, I’ll learn lessons I can pass to the next entrepreneur, and this timeless profession will endure.

June-July 2022 Rates Survey

I’m opening up a 6-question survey to the public, as well as court reporting providers, for court reporting rates.

Associations are allowed to collect and distribute aggregate rate data. I’ve provided information on how newbie court reporters are taken advantage of, sometimes working decades behind inflation, due to the dearth of data about the court reporting & stenotype services industry. It is very clear to me that we must move beyond the fallacy of being unable to discuss rates that has been drilled into court reporters’ collective conscience. We must replace it with a more nuanced truth: Discussions and historical data are fair game. It is collusion and the appearance of collusion among competitors that is problematic for those of us that are true independent contractors and associations. Failing to approach this with some nuance allows our silence to be weaponized against our new people, who are told their skills are worth much less than they actually are. They try to make it work and end up leaving because they’re working too hard for too little money.

Associations also risk falling behind if they do not have this data. A lot of players are scraping up court reporter data today, including Capvision, LEK Consulting, Dialectica, and Guidepoint. I cannot yet say conclusively say how the data is being used, but I can absolutely say that it is not in the hands of court reporters, and therefore we are once again playing “catch up.”

This survey focuses on California, Illinois, New York, and Texas. As of the Ducker Report, those states had the highest court reporting demand (page 13). If you’d like to take part in the survey, please do so. You may also submit your e-mail for a chance to win a $25 Amazon gift card.

I am hopeful that the data collected will be a useful start to understanding the current state of the market. If nothing else, it should provide a base for discussion. Results should be announced sometime in Q3 2022.

What to Say When Offered $0.60 Per Audio Minute

A member of our court reporting community was sent an e-mail soliciting work at $0.60 per audio minute. For contrast, I have heard of reporters working for $100 an audio hour or more, or the equivalent of $1.67 per audio minute, and that was over 10 years ago. It would be about $2.25 per audio minute today, or about $135 per hour, adjusted for inflation.

Independent contractors offered $0.60 per audio minute, less than half the going rate.

Many of us would take issue with that kind of an offer, but this stenographer took the opportunity to educate.

Response to independent contractors being offered $0.60 per audio minute, less than half the going rate.

The company rep apologized and explained that she was not aware. But the stenographer in question kept educating and advocating. I will note that, based on my knowledge of the industry, I believe there’s a typo here, $35 per minute should likely be $35 per page. For anyone not in the field, typically 40 to 60 pages an hour can be expected, meaning 0.66 to 1 page per minute.

Stenographer explains the exploitation of the transcription industry in America.

The corporate rep replied honestly. She had no idea about the earning potential of court reporters.

Response to the earning potential of stenographic court reporters.

Our brave friend continued to educate on the state of the industry.

Stenographer writing about the exploitation of private equity firms in transcription and stenographic court reporting.

To which our company rep closed with:

Company representative on the efficacy of AI in legal transcription.

There are a number of takeaways here. Taking everything at face value, we’re now opened to the possibility that at least some of these company reps are not adequately trained or briefed on the earning potential of court reporters. But it is interesting to note that a company representative is completely aware that AI is not adequate for transcription. It points to a world where we can be drivers of change by simply describing the truth.

It is very unfortunate that companies are diving into the space without an adequate plan to reimburse independently contracted transcribers. But if we can all respond with the above tact and facts when dealing with company reps and transcribers, we can create a shield of information where no one is unknowingly taken advantage of. Not only is speaking up the right thing to do; it will have the desirable effect of increasing job security for stenographic court reporters.

A big thank you for sharing these messages with all of us on Stenonymous.

Addendum:

A reader shared that if one is on the Massachusetts ACT list, they’re paid $3 per page, meaning $0.60 per minute would be a serious reduction in that rate. Even at a highly skilled level, one audio hour can equal one or two transcription hours, meaning that $0.60 a minute is the equivalent of $0.20 a minute or $12 an hour. Unskilled transcribers can take much longer, particularly if the audio quality is bad, meaning their true hourly rate is even lower.

U.S. Legal Support Charged the Equivalent of $4.90 on a Copy Sale in CA

Thanks to my amazing network of sources, I got my hands on another document that gives us a more complete picture of what attorneys are dealing with.

In brief, US Legal wanted $550 for a 112-page transcript copy. That boils down to the equivalent of $4.90 a page. The lawyer wanted to pay $0.25. The court more or less split the baby and said $2.50 was reasonable.

Three major highlights: Herein it talks about US Legal charging for things the attorney did not explicitly order. I cannot think of anything that would support my contention that the company has an honesty problem more. But since over a thousand people have liked my Tweet about Giammanco, I guess that’s old news.

But more than that, reporters making less than $2.50 on a copy should realize that a court just came to a conclusion that $2.50 is reasonable. Guess what New York companies have been paying reporters for the last decade? About 25 cents. Hey, New York, it’s time for a raise. Even our court copy rate of $1.00 falls well short of what California calls reasonable. This isn’t greed, it’s basic math and economics.

But more than that, we now have good evidence of the cost shifting I wrote about. By undercharging original clients and inflating copy costs, the larger companies in my field are overcomplicating the market. Add that to the despicable lies of Veritext and US Legal, and you have a pretty compelling reason to never do business with either.

And in its own defense, US Legal wanted to make the argument that all the court reporting companies charge inflated prices, an argument which was, thankfully, flatly rejected.

They’re not alone though. I’ve reviewed documents showing Naegeli attempted to charge about $11.50 a page on a copy sale in Washington State. But that story is for another day. In the meantime, court reporters, remember that your worth is what you are able to negotiate. It is not tied to what anyone dictates to you. Don’t believe me? There are plenty of other role models to look at.

Though not too many of them are fighting for you the way you could.

PS. For anyone feeling a little lost, court reporters tend to charge by the page. Original transcripts tend to be more than copies of that same original. Depending on the market, we are about 30 years behind inflation. So while systematically underpaying court reporters, companies like USL are actually charging ridiculous amounts to satisfy their bloated management overhead. Because we stenographers are a heavy ethics culture and fairly connected to each other, the companies have an interest in breaking us and replacing us with digital reporters despite evidence that utilization of digital reporting disproportionately impacts minority speakers.

The Magic of Cost Shifting – How Big Companies Beat the Working Reporter

After releasing the article on how a New York reporter doubled their money by taking private clients, I was hit with a scenario. “Chris, I went to get private clients, but they showed me invoices they were getting, and they were lower than what I get from my agency! How does anybody make money in this city?” Subsequently I came across an article regarding Veritext’s lawsuit with US Adjustment Corp., and from that lawsuit I was able to get a whole lot of old invoices.

At a glance, most of the invoices seem to be between $3.40 and $3.95, and this is indeed competitive with the rates given to reporters for O+2 work, which usually lands somewhere between $3.25 and $4.25 with no upcharges. For non-NY readers, your O+1 is our O+2. The witness’s attorney customarily gets their copy without charge. For those of you that would like to peruse 200 pages of invoices, enjoy. The rest of you, keep reading.

Just in case anybody missed it, at least one of these invoices is listed at the Cutting Edge Deposition office, a one-star digital reporting outfit. So there’s at least circumstantial evidence that Veritext was linked to or had a relationship with digital reporting services as early as 2015. Note also that there’s basically no difference between the price listed at the digital firm’s office and any other invoice. As old studies have shown, digital reporting is not cheaper.

Judging by that rating, Cutting Edge might cut some corners.

Obviously, these are all over half a decade old and may not reflect current market rates. Obviously whatever rates USAC was getting were probably discounted for the bulk work in the same way Diamond gave the Law Department great rates. The point stands that companies are finding a way to charge less than the reporter is making. How is that possible?

1. Cost shifting via copies.
2. Zombie behavior.

Cost shifting?
Cost shifting, in this context, is when one party underpays for a service or product, and the cost of that service or product is recovered from another party who is overpaying.

Again, using New York City’s market as an example, an agency could pay a reporter $3.25, $4.25, or whatever rate was agreed upon. The reporter generally makes the majority of that O+2. Where the agencies get their money is typically the copies. Let’s say you send Johnny on a deposition for $4.25 a page, but you give your client a sweet $3.95 rate because they have so much bulk work. A loss, right? Only if the job is an O+2. There’s no statutory cap on copies here that I know of, and copy rates are notoriously bad in New York City, between 25 cents and 50 cents, so a single copy of more than $0.55/page means profit for the company on that job. Just to put this into perspective, I’ve reviewed a Veritext email from the Midwest region that had copy rates in the $3.80 (regular) to $4.80 (expedite) ballpark. The copy rate for officials in New York, who also collect a salary in addition to their pages, has been hovering around a dollar for the last couple of decades. The idea that private sector is not charging more for that is pretty naive. So assuming an original of 3.95/page, a copy sale of 3.80/page, and a payment to Johnny of 4.50/page, the agency is pulling in $7.75/page in revenue. That’s nearly 42% of the money for them for what is essentially a finder’s fee. It also complicates things for Johnny, who can’t promise clients $3.95 unless he’s willing to take a pay cut and gamble on getting copies.

It goes beyond that with what’s called a sliding scale. The sliding scale awards the client, and sometimes the copy purchasers, with a discount dependent on the number of copies sold. Because the reporters are not fighting for their copies, companies have a lot of wiggle room. They can put $8 on a copy invoice. If a lawyer pays it, then they’ve just made $8 a page under the client’s assumption that “court reporters are so expensive.” If the lawyer complains, they can cut that rate down to $4 or $2, tell the lawyer they’re such a great client and getting such a great deal, pay the 25 cents to the reporter, and walk away with significant amounts of money. Think about it this way: Let’s send Sally on an O+6 for a rocking $5.25 a page, original and 4 copy sales at Johnny’s same rates. The agency can charge 2 bucks a page to everyone, walk away with $10 a page, and again make about what Sally is making despite it being Sally that’s doing 99% of the work because binding transcripts really isn’t hard. Again, Sally is stuck in a situation where working on her own might actually make her less money unless and until copy sales come into play. If Sally can’t survive the short-term pay cut, she doesn’t make it to the big bucks that are keeping agency rents paid, and she’s more likely to accept whatever rate the agency wants instead of the best rate her skill can command. And that $5.25 is generous, because prior to the court reporter shortage getting bad, some companies, like Diamond, didn’t even bother to pay all of their reporters copies. So a company like Diamond as it was would’ve been making 60% of the money from the job before factoring in the proofreading fee that some reporters were asked or told to pay.

The darker side of the sliding scale is when companies ask reporters to change their layout or give a discount on multiple copy sales/realtime hookups. There is typically zero guarantee that they are passing on those savings to clients. Think about that the next time you send a job in your preferred layout and an agency asks you to cram it into a new one that widens the margins or changes the page count. The N word can be your friend sometimes. I knew a realtimer who was asked to slide their rate back because of all the parties ordering. Acquiescence meant losing half their money on that job, but failing to acquiesce might’ve meant the entire job being given to someone else. They used the N word, got the job, and made lots of money. Reporters win when they stand up for themselves.

A hyper-realistic depiction of a court reporter using the N word.

Zombie Behavior? Brains…
Several articles ago I explained the concept of zombie companies. Companies can make money through loans and investors, keeping cash flow positive while losing money and/or earning no profit. Zombies can also be defined as companies that are just barely making their debt obligations. 1 in 5 companies examined by Bloomberg were zombies. In a 2019 Kentley Insights report, 1 in 4 court reporting companies was said to be not profitable. Those that were not profitable lost an average of 10% of their revenue a year. These companies can basically use their investor money to hire people and give customers great discounts. If they obtain large enough market share and run competitors into the ground, they can then jack up their prices monopoly style.

This isn’t a fantasy-land scenario. It’s what Uber did. It gave great discounts and even occasionally gave drivers incentives. It killed the taxi industry as best it could, made itself a fixture in people’s lives, and jacked up the rates while claiming a shortage. Meanwhile, the business model is losing billions of dollars a year. Honestly, I’m more concerned with the cost shifting than I am with the zombies. If companies can’t make money exploiting the “driving” skill, companies are doomed when it comes to a specialized skill like legal reporting. This is a simple calculation. About 80% of America drives and about 0.01% of America court reports. It’s about supply and demand. To me, that says that reporting zombie firms are about 8,000 times less likely to be profitable than Uber, a company which despite ubiquity and billions lost has not managed to turn a profit. But the danger of zombies is evident: They can take up significant market share, impact market rates, and bankrupt other service providers for decades before the money runs out. Again, look at what they did to the medallions. A high of $1 million in sales went as low as $140,000 in recent years, likely thanks to companies that do not even have a sustainable model.

What do we do?
Hope. I’ve been told “what? That’s business! You hate business? They’re not doing anything wrong!” Legally they are probably not doing anything wrong in New York. I’ll concede that much until I have real evidence to the contrary. But morally it’s pretty clear this is wrong. Why are the page rates such a shell game? Why is everything so hidden instead of the yesteryear commission split that reporters made? Why aren’t young reporters being taught the value of the copy and their work? It’s easy to control ignorant people and conclude a lot of companies want reporters to be ignorant so that the companies can continue to leech off of the work of reporters. So to address the morality question, ask yourself how you would feel about me if my mantra was “I need you to be dumb so I can profit off your work.” That would be pretty evil, right? How about if I reduced standard turnaround times so you were always too busy with work to think about the situation and whether you were getting a fair deal? Let’s say I wasn’t evil and circumstances just lined up perfectly for me to profit off your ignorance, and I let it happen. Am I a “good person” yet? Am I “not doing anything wrong?” Sometimes it seems we have this bizarre notion that anything goes in business except standing up and saying “no, this is wrong, I won’t cooperate with this.” I’m still in the process of vetting the following, but I was told by a colleague that reporting companies here in New York City brought on salespeople, the salespeople saw the money to be made in this field, started creating their own companies, killed the union, and from there our rates literally stagnated for about 30 years. In my younger years I was literally told “if you don’t like the way it is, leave.” A good four people that I knew in or around my graduating class of 2010 did leave. It’s been an incredible decade and we are now at the point where people are talking about this stuff pretty freely instead of telling newbies they’re the problem and that they should leave. As I see it, hope and communication are winning us many battles.

I can’t say with certainty where the tolerance to everything that keeps reporter rates down comes from Perhaps it’s all exacerbated by antitrust concerns and the fact that our associations cannot engage in anticompetitive behavior such as group boycotts. Perhaps we see they are silenced, so we mimic that silence. NCRA, for example, could never legally denounce Veritext, US Legal, or Planet Depos in the same way I’m allowed to. Maybe that tolerance is linked to survivorship bias. “I was successful and therefore anyone who is not successful must not be trying hard enough.” Maybe that tolerance is linked to expectations and the Pygmalion effect. “There’s nothing I can do, so I won’t try to change anything, and therefore nothing changes, validating my belief that there was nothing I could do.”

There’s no end to the list of “maybes,” but there is a profound power in spreading knowledge. With knowledge on how the court reporting firms are making their money, everyone from the grizzled four-decade reporter to the newbie graduate can compete. That’s a pretty scary thought for anybody who’s been making money off of reporter ignorance. That’s a scary thought for reporting companies that can’t even make a profit in the current climate. But for the people that actually do the work in this field and the reporter-owned companies, it provides real opportunity. Not so entrepreneurial? You’ve seen now hundreds of invoices and just how much money is in this field. It’s time to ask for your fair share. A typical finder’s fee is something between 5% and 35%. Why should you give up 95% on a copy?

Entrepreneurial? Try subcontracting your O+2 out to your non-entrepreneurial colleagues and grabbing those copy jobs. It may be frightening to lose money on any one job, but if you lose $100 on one job and make $1,000 on another, you put more in your pocket, and as I just showed you, it works out mathematically. You can pay your colleagues well and still make boatloads of money. If you’d like to be added to the list of agencies I compiled so that New York reporters can find you, let me know.

There’s no cheap fix. Industry health is a lot like personal health. Took me a long time to get heavy. It was about a decade of decline until I peaked at 290 pounds. It also took a long time and a lot of reporter apathy to get from the golden age 80s to the nightmare of a field I stepped into where rates were lower in 2010 than they were in 1991. Those of you who saw me at NCRA 2021 saw I’m a lot closer to 240 now and headed in a somewhat healthier direction. Without some communication from people that loved me, I probably would’ve remained hopeless and just kept gaining the weight. Similarly we can rehabilitate this field and make the working reporter’s wallet a lot healthier on average, but it’s going to take consistent effort to get word out to the newbies. The long-term consequence of an informed field is probably more stable pricing for consumers, the people we’re doing all this for to begin with, and I can’t see a single drawback.

Addendum:
As pointed out in a comment below, I neglected to point out that agencies also create a word index or concordance index and charge for those pages. Some firms charge a reduced rate and others charge a full rate. In my past experience, no firm paid the reporter for the index. Since it’s a practice that relates so closely to this topic, I am adding it here.

Is VITAC Paying Below Market Rates for Captioners?

About three months ago, after Verbit’s acquisition of VITAC, a well-known captioning provider, I published a strategic overview for captioners and how they can stand up for consumers. Not long ago, a live steno captioner position was posted by VITAC for less than $20 an hour. The position did boast other incentives, such as the potential for health insurance and a 401(k) for full-time captioners. With health insurance being valued by sources like Griffin at $1.52 to $7.42 an hour, it’s fair to say that we can consider a $19.23 hourly rate with benefits a value of about $30 an hour at best and a value of $20.75 at worst.

Remember, the value is slightly higher than the dollar value if benefits are offered.

Stenography is a highly specialized skill. But even other highly specialized skills, like realtime voice writing, were undervalued. The voice captioner posting said $30 hourly at the top, but then in the body of the description, a $17/hr training rate was advertised. It was further advertised that $35,000 could be made in the first year. $35,000 divided by 52 weeks in a year is about $673.08 a week. Assuming a 40-hour workweek, that’s about $16.83/hr — close to half the advertised rate!

Come work for me for $30 an hour! I mean $17! I mean $16.83!

I thought, “if a company is going to pay its specialized workforce $20 or $30 an hour, certainly I feel bad for the positions that do not have labor shortages or specialized skills.” Then I came across VITAC’s posting for Sales Engineer I (SE1). An SE1’s job is all about onboarding new clients and responding to requests from Operations and Sales personnel. They’re offered $58,000 to $70,000 annually, the equivalent of $27.88/hr and $33.65/hr assuming the same 40-hour workweek. So VITAC’s apparent strategy is to pay the stenographer that is providing the actual service to the consumer about 60% of what they’re paying the salespeople. But just to make sure they look good, they added a modern stenotype to the website.

No offense, sales engineer I, but I think captioners have it a little harder than you do.
Maybe if you were offering more than $20/hr, I wouldn’t find this picture so comical.

Of course, having been in the field the last eleven years, I also have some basic familiarity with the rates that captioners and CART providers charge. $20 to $30 for a “live steno captioner” job seemed low to me. Knowing how companies in the court reporting sector have taken advantage of young reporters, I requested information from several service providers in the field with varying degrees of experience in the hopes that I could get solid info out there for young or unknowing captioners. This is what I learned:

Provider A stated that they did not provide broadcast captioning, but did caption telephone calls and Zoom meetings at a rate of “almost $40 an hour” through Innocaption. It was stated that the work was super easy and may even be possible for students to take, though Provider A did mention they usually do not recommend students work. Asked about their understanding of broadcast captioning rates, Provider A stated broadcast captioning was higher.

Provider B
stated “Even as a brand new CART provider, I never made less than $60 an hour. With one company, after I got my [certification], they bumped me to $65. Another company has always been $65 across the board. The third company has different rates for different jobs. Classes are $60 but if you are doing town halls, harder jobs, it is $75. Fourth Company was a smaller company and [they] paid me $80 per hour, and it was only classes. First company I spoke of is out of Illinois, second is Denver, third is California, fourth is Chicago. And I have never done broadcast captioning. I hope that helps!”

Provider C stated that they performed work for call services that did live captioning and were offered $40 an hour, but they were only taking down one side of a conversation.

Provider D, a 27-year veteran of our field and certified realtime reporter, stated that when they took on captioning work, it was 2014, they had a full-time job, and they did not need to make the same high rates independent contractors usually did. They made $50/hr in 2014 and a 2-hour minimum. That work came to a close. Come 2020, Provider D was again offered $50/hr and attempted to negotiate for $80 because the work was dense and contained a lot of science. The firm “did not know” if they could pay $80, and asked Provider D to come down to $70, which Provider D did with the caveat that they would renegotiate at a later date.

Provider D also received a call from a California-based company and negotiated $100/hr with a 2-hour minimum. The firm paying $100/hr expected no rough draft after events. The firm paying $70/hr required a rough draft. A third firm in Florida offered $80/hr. Provider D stated that the swing was generally between $50/hr to $100/hr and that they would never work for $20/hr because captioning is more than knowing realtime, you have to know how to connect to a multitude of platforms and devices, as well as troubleshoot on the fly.

Provider E wrote “My first response when I read [the $20 rate] was OMG! Yeah, that is SUPER low! So here’s what I know from where I sit in the Pacific Northwest:

There are four levels of captioning that I have ascertained.
1. Broadcast captioning, which is a whole other sphere that requires encoding software and usually above and beyond training to do TV captioning. I don’t really know much about that…” “I don’t know what rates they’re charging, but it has to be higher because the software is not cheap, like a $7k add-on with Eclipse.

2. CART captioning, either in person or remote, through a freelance company or own shingle. This is stuff like government meetings, group conferences, seminars and such, $120-$125/hr with 2-3 hour minimum in my area. We are sometimes requested to bring a projector and/or screen, which adds to rental fees. About half of people charge after hours rates on this. I feel the remote world has let this go a bit. But I know when I go back in person that’ll definitely go back in.

3. Schools. One on one with one student. they are notoriously cheap in my opinion even though they’re being paid by ADA funds, from my understanding. Most commonly in my area $85/hr, 2-hr min. But I’ve negotiated more for after hours and weekend work with one college.

4. There is one company whose name escapes me, probably more, who provide a captioner for phone calls. they only pay $30/hr. I was really bothered by this undercutting of the industry when I found out about the rates folks were accepting. But a reporter I talked to about it said [it’s] mostly sitting there doing nothing because you’re only writing half of the conversation, no transcripts, so super easy work. She considered it easy supplemental income.

That $20 is WAY out of line, especially if that requires continuous writing…”

Provider F wrote “everyone has their baseline. I will do $70 and hide my head, for a friend. But my default is $80 or $85. However, if it’s MY work, my clients, I charge 100 or 125 and pay $80 or $90 or $100 depending on the job…”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator, $50 in 2014 money is worth $58.08 in June 2021 dollars. $100 in 2014 money is worth $116.15 in June 2021 dollars. Again, for new captioners, this should put into perspective the value of the work and the importance of occasional raises.

I also reached out to StenoCaptions LLC and received the following response:

“Good afternoon, Mr. Day,

Thank you for your question about our company.  StenoCaptions LLC is proud to be a minority woman-owned business.  Our team of independent contractor captioners earn between $100-120 per hour depending on their qualifications and length of time in the field.  As our website discloses, we charge $140 per hour for most jobs.  This means that our captioners, who are the people doing the difficult and demanding work of providing live accurate Communication Access Real-time Translation, net between 70-86% of what we bill.  StenoCaptions LLC is proud to support our highly trained, highly reliable stenographic captioners.  

We are happy to be quoted on your  blog.  Let us know if you have any further questions.

Sincerely,
Wendy Baquerizo and Joshua Edwards
Co-owners
StenoCaptions LLC
StenoCaptions.com”

As of writing, there is little doubt in my mind that the rates being offered by VITAC, and I suppose by extension Verbit, are well below what could be considered a market rate no matter which market in the United States we examine. Again, in the best-case scenario of a $30/hr value, they are paying 40% less than Provider D, whose full-time job was not captioning, made in 2014! A company like Steno Captions is literally paying six times as much to their providers. This has some troubling implications. Verbit’s entire model, as I understand it, is automatic speech recognition transcription coupled with a human transcriber. Verbit claims on its site that after 8 hours it can provide ADA-compliant material at 99% accuracy, at least that’s how I understand their infographic. They also make the claim of 95% accuracy with an 8 to 12-second delay.

To be fair, it takes me about 8 hours to get 99 percent accuracy on 160 pages. But I’m not a captioner.

We have to deal with the hard fact that, in its series A funding, Verbit made the claim that its “adaptive speech recognition tech” could generate detailed transcriptions with over 99 percent accuracy at record speeds. In its series B funding, Verbit, through CEO Livne, said it would not take the human transcriber out of its workflow. Now it’s apparent that Verbit regards “record speeds” as 8 hours. We have to deal with the hard fact that, when studied by people at Stanford, an entire host of automatic speech recognition products from companies far larger than Verbit had accuracy levels that were 25 to 80 percent dependent on who was speaking.

There’s just no good reason to believe that Verbit consistently has the capabilities that it says it has. This is all part of the claim game that I demonstrated earlier this year. In the video I just linked, I tell six lies, one partial truth, and one actual truth in fifteen seconds. I challenged my readers to think about how long it would take to prove the truth or falsity of each claim. I have to make the same challenge here. Verbit’s website boasts that they are trusted by “400+ organizations,” but when one flips through the organization list, one sees about 16 organizations. Even if one wanted to spend the time and energy to fact check the claim of being trusted by 400 organizations, one could not do so. Why bring it up? Because stenographers need to be aware that a lot of the “intimidating” information out there falls apart when given any sort of investigation. Likewise, there are entities out there that will try to convince young captioners that their skill is not worth very much. I’m publishing this information today to counter that.

Perhaps the low pay wouldn’t bother me, but it goes directly against digital recording’s main talking point of “we need to record it because there are not enough stenographers to meet demand.”

You guys showcase the shortage. I’ll keep showcasing your BS.

Maybe the shortage of stenographic court reporters and captioners is exacerbated by companies like this coming in and offering pay that’s nowhere near the market rate. There’s no innovation involved. It’s a shameless war on workers. It doesn’t take a particularly bright person to say “gee, there would be more money for the company if only we could reduce the labor costs.” It also doesn’t take a particularly bright person to point out to captioners that they cannot accept this if they want a healthy field. We’re going to need the entrepreneurial individuals among us to consider jumping in, setting up shop, and competing. We’re going to need captioners to demand the pay they deserve. So if you come across an inexperienced reporter getting told they’re only worth $20/hr, please share this with them and be a major part of pushing back.

Addendum:
I realized after my initial draft that the $20 an hour could be a full-time job. Assuming 7 hours a day, five days a week, 52 weeks a year, that’s a salary of about $36,400, below the national average, and well below what I started working for as a court reporter around $70,000 a year. So even looking at it from the standpoint and potential of “more hours for less pay” I am unimpressed and captioners should be too.

The Impossible Institute

Let me set the timeline for everybody. It’s 2008. Schools are seeing some pretty nice numbers, maybe 60 a trimester where I was. Court reporting steno schools are saying this is a timeless, guaranteed profession. Obsolescence is impossible and there will always be tons of work. 2010 comes along, and my class of reporters is told by the market there’s no work. There’s a glut. Too many reporters, not enough work. We’ll start you at what they made in 1991 because we’re such benevolent people. And by the way, rate increase is impossible. By 2014, there’s news of a shortage incoming. and by 2018, the shortage is in full swing, and even here in New York, where you had agencies like Diamond not paying their people copies, unless they really liked them, they started paying copies to a larger percentage of their reporters. That was after almost a decade of such a terrible cost to the agency being deemed impossible. Thanks, partner.

So it’s interesting whenever someone tells me something can’t happen, won’t happen, or is impossible. It’s equally interesting when someone comes out with an authoritative and definite prediction, that something must happen. So I briefly reviewed some materials out of STTI, the new mouthpiece of the anti-steno business coalition. Completely ignoring the resurgence of American stenography and my series of ten shortage solutions, the STI says crunch the numbers, it’s impossible for schools to meet the forecasted shortage of 8,000 reporters by 2020. Well, maybe, when we go by the information from 2013, it seems unlikely. But when you can log into the Open Steno Discord and see almost 100 people online on a Saturday morning in 2019, and you can see for yourself the constant efforts of A to Z, Project Steno, and private schools, it seems like these so-called experts have little more than a BA in BS.

Don’t take it from me, look at their own words. They try to pin the blame on NCRA for not adopting voice writing wholesale. But what kind of argument is that? Voice writing has been around since World War II, but the NCRA didn’t adopt it, so now it’s too late, digital wins. If anything, that tells me that if the NCRA doesn’t adopt it, it doesn’t fly. If we, the stenographers in the marketplace today, do not accept your inferior methodology, and keep marketing ourselves, we stay on top. If they’re so sure that these steno-centric programs won’t work, why bother saying they cannot win? Simple. They’re guarding an empty city. If they get you to give up recruiting, educating, and empowering your fellow reporters, the market’s open for them to come in and pick up the pieces. You decide whether that happens. Are you going to let five people scare off 20,000 of you?

Look no further than their straw man future predictions to see how weak their argument is. What will the market look like in 2039? What will happen in 20 years? You don’t know. Nobody knows. So when the “experts” tell you what’ll happen, they hope it’ll give you a sense of security, and you’ll act or fail to act, and become a participant in their version of the future. That’s how that works. It’s an echo chamber claiming steno will fail in the hopes that that’s how things roll. Are you going to fall for it?

I’m generally not going to cover the STI too much on this blog. Who wants to give clicks to a cherry picking propaganda outfit? But look at the beginning of this post again. Look at all the people who made claims that turned out to be untrue. I’ll give you one more. In 2017, I was told more or less not to bother with this blog because nobody would read it or find what I had to say credible. It was impossible. This year I had 13,000 views and 6,000 visitors. Here’s a prediction. You can do that. You can do anything you’ve got motivation for. And you can do it a heck of a lot better than the experts. I’d say the people out there working every day are the experts. To wrap this up, let’s just say that if someone is telling you that something is impossible, or that something is definitely going to happen, you want to look at their motives before you buy in. Last question. What’s your next move?

Historic Rate Data: New York 1990s

We’ve got another snippet of the past. Last time, we looked at historic rate data from the west coast of the United States. Today, the old Federation of Shorthand Reporters contract hit the web. That’s the east coast of the United States. For those who don’t know, there was a union for freelancers in New York City in the 80s and 90s. They had their struggles and legal hurdles, and they do not exist today, but the agreement stands as a gateway to the past that we can use to inform our future.

And inform our future this should. A quick glance at the contract tells us the November 1991 rate for a regular was 2.75. Expedite $3.35. Daily $3.65. As with last time, I shoved this into an inflation calculator. Inflation, remember, affects all currency. It impacts every industry. It impacts every dollar earned in this country every year regardless of who is earning it or what job they do. If you have money, you are pretty much guaranteed to have inflation. Even virtual economies in video games experience inflation. It is a concept inherent to capital.

You know what I learned? That $2.75 rate in 1991 dollars had the buying power of $5.12. That means if you’re making $3.25 today, you’re working 40 percent harder to have the same buying power. If you’re making $3.50, you’re working about 30 percent harder to have the same buying power. Even at a gorgeous rate like $4.50, you are working 10 percent harder than they did in the 90s to make the same buying power. When I say work harder, I mean more pages. When I say more pages, we all know that that translates to lost time with our families, friends, and more time staring into our screens racing deadlines. If you’re a newbie like I was, and you’re started out at $2.80, you basically need to do double the pages that they had to do in 1991 in order to have the same buying power and quality of life. Again, we’re not talking about a raise. We’re talking about keeping the same exact quality of life.

It’s time to train each other. It’s time to share this info so we don’t stay on this ride. For every reporter out there who doesn’t know, there’s a reporter ready to be suckered. It’s that simple. Staying quiet will force people right out of this field because they’re being expected to work much harder to have the same quality of life. Personally, I have no problem accepting that there are market forces pushing down that rate. It’s not $5.12 or bust. But have some respect for ourselves. I have no problem saying we need to rise up and be damn good at what we do. Can you walk into an agency and say “hey, the rates from 1991 were better, I need a raise?” No. But it’s time to end the culture of silence, look at what was, keep each other informed, and stride toward where we want to be.

October Occupations 2019

Before we get into this post I just want to say I updated the old Get A Job post to include the exams page of NYSUCS. I still say that every jobseeker in New York should be checking the pages linked there every 15 to 30 days to be safe. Share findings. Be committed to keeping everyone up to date. If everyone is talking about where the work is, nobody’s left in the dark.

Even though this page launches October 1, postings are only current as of September 30.

DANY is still hiring for their grand jury reporter position. It’s a great job. Definitely give it a shot.

Special Narcotics Prosecutor, as I recall, had a posting for one grand jury reporter. Now there’s a posting for two. I say that if you haven’t applied yet, it’s your lucky day, go for it.

The state court system is still accepting applications for the provisional court reporter job. If you didn’t take the test, it still might make sense to apply. If they didn’t get enough passes on the civil service exam, they’re going to need you.

Southern District, that’s federal court, is still looking for a reporter. Don’t let this great opportunity go to waste if you’ve got the certifications or skill necessary to work with SDNY.

There are over ten vacancies federally all around the country. If New York’s not where your heart is, no big deal, but you’re not allowed to leave (joke).

Plaza continues to keep a posting for court reporting and English instructors.

New Jersey has apparently started hiring for the first time in a long time. I had posted this on Facebook but not on Stenonymous. Hopefully the government has realized the inherent value of having someone personally responsible for making the record.

Freelancers, I know that there’s often not a lot of postings on here with regard to work for you. I will work on something that might help there. Until then, you’re free to check out my recent post on historic data and inflation, as it impacts every dollar we make every day we breathe. I have been getting emails from Magna claiming over $100 in bonus fees. Now that I think about it, this probably gives you a clue what’s actually being charged for appearance fees, and a peak into the law of supply and demand. You’re in demand. Your skills are in demand. Act accordingly, do great work, and make a great record.

Fun fact. In the editor this post has no bullet points. In the preview it does. Which version will everyone see? That is the question. If you’ve ever wondered why some posts seem to have bizarre formatting, I blame computers.

The vTestify Lie

I’ve often worried we too often buy into hype from voice recognition sellers. Dragon represents itself as being 99 percent accurate, but only has about a 3-star rating. Opened up to scrutiny, VR and digital recording companies don’t make the cut.

So we had a company mentioned on Facebook called vTestify. They brag about all the money they can save people on depositions. Just knowing what I’ve reported in the past, other voice recognition companies have raised a lot of money. Verbit raised $20 million. Trint raised something like $160 million. As far as I can tell, vTestify raised $3 million. Either they’re 50 times more efficient than everybody else or they’re woefully underfunded and their investors are set to lose while the company lurches along burning capital. Let that sink in for the next time somebody is trying to sell you the future, investors!

I would’ve left it there, but then another reporter brought up that they have a calculator. The claims there are laughable. They claim that they can save attorneys $3,198 per deposition. I don’t know what reporters in North Carolina are charging, but I know here in New York I could get somewhere around $4.00 a page, and maybe on a great day a $100 appearance fee. A pretty thick day is about 200 pages, only ever getting to that 300 or 400 page count occasionally. So take 200 pages multiplied by 4. 800. Add on that sweet appearance fee, and maybe it comes to 900 bucks. Even real-time reporters only charge a buck or two a hookup, so even with 6 hookups, we’re still only talking maybe a $2,000 day. We can all acknowledge that these glamorous multi-thousand dollar days exist, but the bottom line is that’s not the norm and vTestify isn’t actually saving anybody a dime. Their calculator doesn’t even make any sense. When I added the numbers they gave, I got $3,646. Somehow their calculator comes up with $4,329.

It gets better — or worse — you decide! Then we have this snippet about the court reporter shortage. Using their numbers and assuming it’s totally true, they say there are 23,000 reporters to cover 3 million depositions. What a crisis! Except when you take three million and divide that by 23,000, you get 130 and change. If every reporter took 131 depositions a year, using vTestify’s own numbers, we’d be just fine. There are about 260 weekdays in a year. Succinctly, if every reporter worked half the weekdays in a year, by vTestify’s own argument, there’d be no shortage. Let’s not forget all of the steno-centric initiatives like Open Steno, A to Z, Stenotrain, and Project Steno, that have taken place since the Ducker Report to bring people into this field. Are we really expected to believe there was zero impact and things went exactly as predicted? I don’t, and you shouldn’t either. Let’s put this another way. If the median salary of a reporter is about 57,000, reporters are only taking home, on average, 5,000 a month gross. So how can vTestify be saving anyone 3k or 4k per deposition when the average reporter is only grossing 5k per month? They can’t. But that doesn’t stop them from saying they can.

We have one decision to make in this field. Are we going to get out there and educate the consumer, or are we going to lay down and let these irresponsible companies fake it until they make it? There’s zero compunction with lying to make a buck, and customers need to know. Smart purchasers have already seen through this BS and stuck with stenographers through thick and thin, and they’ve done better for it. Tried, tested, efficient; stenographic reporters are the way to go. Maybe vTestify will figure that out and make the switch themselves!

Remember all this next time you see somebody peddling a similar product. And next time you’re making a sales pitch, ask your buyer what their monthly budget for depositions looks like. If it’s more than $5,000 a month, I have a few numbers above that say they can save a whole lot by switching to stenography.